The Legend of Bagger Vance ★★★★

Although Robert Redford remains best known as an actor, he maintains a devotion to the full breadth of film culture. Not only is he the guiding force behind the celebration of independent film that is the Sundance Film Festival, but he has also maintained a career as a director. Having won the Academy Award for Best Director on his debut directorial effort Ordinary People, Redford has indeed been enshrined as a major Hollywood artist. There will still be those who do not get past his blond good looks, but Redford is a man of considerable aspiration. Yet he has been able to achieve a disarming simplicity in his films, particularly in the gentle fable of The Milagro Beanfield War. It is that combination of aspiration and a faith in simplicity that carries through in Redford’s latest effort as director, The Legend of Bagger Vance, the film where the director is finally able to fully realize the spiritual grace and psychological complexity that underlines the appearance of such simplicity.

The Legend of Bagger Vance is an adaptation of the popular novel by Steven Pressfield. It concerns Rannulph Junuh (played by Matt Damon), a local golfing hero who is psychologically scarred by his experiences in World War One. Returning home, he has forsaken the sport and his ladylove (Charlize Theron) and retreated into alcohol and despair. When an exhibition match is staged, he is sought to participate and is guided back into the game by a mysterious caddy Bagger Vance (played by a restrained Will Smith). He admits that he has lost his authentic swing but participates in the tournament against world champions Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen in the hope of finding it again. In the process, he must overcome his “personal demons” and rediscover his abandoned soul and in the process, love itself. For him, the mysterious Bagger Vance is a spiritually cathartic presence, a mystical guide.

The original novel has been interpreted in terms of a spiritual allegory. Indeed it has been reportedly based on Indian mysticism in general and in particular on the seminal Hindu religious text the Bhagavad-Gita. This epic poem tells of God, the Bhagavad, coming to earth to guide a despondent man, Arjuna, to recognize his own spirituality. The similarities in name (Bhagavad = Bagger Vance, Arjuna = R. Junuh) have been noted in analysis of the book and the film. Although it has a Hindu foundation, the sense of spirituality in the film transcends individual faiths towards a more universal mysticism that is nevertheless applied to a uniquely American metaphor about self-discovery, self-improvement and individual achievement in a competitive field. It wants to be an American myth, and succeeds admirably.

It is set during the Great Depression and is a vision of hope and accomplishment. Redford is attracted to sport as a metaphor for life (he tackled fly-fishing in A River Runs Through It and has played numerous sportsmen) and here constructs it as a metaphor for the positive, uplifting American experience. Thus the golf course is an elaborate colourful gem amidst the harsh colours of the Depression for the golf course represents the field of American competitiveness and achievement that must be kept alive at all costs – Theron has that responsibility. It is on this ground that heroism and enlightenment is possible. On the competitive field, psychological and physical hardship can be mastered, and as such the field is a sign of America’s greatness and continued potential. But although the field is there, the individual needs guidance from beyond himself if he is to reach his full potential. And this guidance is spiritual in nature.

Damon’s Junuh starts the film in alcoholic self-pity. He is floundering in despair, a man who has lost his authentic swing, his soul. He senses a chance to find it again but is reluctant until the mysterious, non-threatening stranger Bagger Vance shows up to be his caddy, his guide. That, and a young boy’s faith in his potential, allows him to regain his confidence in his abilities and to find his soul again. With the assistance of a spiritual deity, a man can once again get in touch with his natural gifts, forsaken in despair, and attain a self-confidence and self-improvement that results in a transcendent individual triumph. But divine guidance will only take one to a certain point. Hence Bagger Vance must leave, and it is up to the young man to live up to his full potential on the competitive field. In that respect the film is about the healing power of a spiritual force that can enable Americans to find their real strengths.
This is rendered with gentle humour and charm and although mystical at times is never heavy-handed. It is a story of individual greatness made possible by divine guidance and the American ideal of the land of opportunity (a metaphorical sporting field). Despair thus need not be overwhelming, as an individual hero must also recognize his responsibilities to the community he represents. In that respect, and in Damon’s physical resemblance to a young Redford, the film takes on a personal meaning for the director, himself a cultural icon. In The Legend of Bagger Vance Redford has made a life-affirming fable that stands, as he admittedly intended, in contrast to what the director sees as a contemporary negativism. Redford has admitted that he wanted to create a positive work of popular appeal and achieves a film that is in part comparable to the magic of Field of Dreams. Unfortunately, The Legend of Bagger Vance did not ignite the critics or the public as much as that movie, but it nevertheless remains a warm, beautiful film.